Although substance abuse and substance dependence are frequently used interchangeably, the two terms, while interrelated, are distinct. While both refer to someone's destructive association with drugs or alcohol, one often comes before the other. Addiction specialists and mental health professionals emphasize the importance of understanding both terms in order to better understand abuse and how it can lead to dependence.
Substance Abuse: An Overview
Addiction specialists describe substance abuse as the practice of drinking or using drugs in excess, even when its negative consequences are known. Substance abuse is associated with risk-taking behaviors, such as driving while under the influence or engaging in unprotected sex, that may place the individual in dangerous situations that may even involve others.
Common signs of substance abuse include missing work or school, failing to meet various obligations in one's life, being arrested for intoxication, driving drunk or under the influence of drugs,and suffering relationship or family problems.
Substance Dependence: An Overview
Typically, establishing a pattern of substance abuse paves the way to substance dependence, which can be thought of as addiction. Substance dependence can still involve behaviors and excessive substance use associated with abuse, but it goes a step further. Someone said to be suffering from substance dependence has a physical dependency on an addictive substance like alcohol, illicit drugs or prescription drugs. If the person attempts to quit using the substance, they risk the onset of withdrawal symptoms.1
Common signs and symptoms of substance dependence include the presence of withdrawal symptoms, developing a tolerance to doses of the substance, experiencing both physical and psychological effects of the substance—tremors, anxiety, depression, mood swings, inability to focus, dizziness—and often a denial of problems. Some people suffering from addiction face difficult legal and financial circumstances as a result of their substance dependency.
Treatment for Substance Abuse and Dependence
Treatment for substance dependence involves more steps to treatment than substance abuse because of the powerful addiction that affects both the mind and body. While those suffering from substance abuse require counseling, group therapy and behavioral adjustments, addiction sufferers usually require more long-term therapy that starts with medical detoxification.
A person who is substance dependent isn't merely physically dependent on the substance; they are also dependent psychologically and behaviorally. Medical detox addresses the physical component of addiction, but intensive therapy is required to address their mental and behavioral dependencies on drugs or alcohol.2 The process of recovery is often long and may include periods of relapse, but there is no cure for the disease of addiction.
If you know someone or are suffering yourself with substance addiction, it's important to seek treatment right away. Substance abuse can very quickly develop into a full-blown substance addiction. Getting help is the key to overcoming both of these conditions.